More people take to the skies as COVID-19 vaccinations take off

Updated: Apr. 1, 2021 at 12:04 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Optimism for a recovering travel industry is soaring as more people get vaccinated and flier confidence takes off.

March was the busiest flying month since the start of the pandemic for the Tucson International Airport, signaling a departure from the initial fear that grounded the industry.

“Our worst day was last April,” said Bruce Goetz, the chief operating officer of the Tucson Airport Authority (TAA). “Just below 300 people [flew with us] in one day. Recently, we have been approaching back to around 5,000 people through screening a day.”

Goetz says that’s still down about 55% from 2019′s passenger numbers, but it’s also an encouraging boost from the 96% drop in passengers in April, 2020.

“I think my confidence has increased in flying, they have taken so many precautions to make it safe,” said Raven Burns, who flew home to Tucson on Wednesday.

Burns says confidence seems to vary from state to state.

“New York was sort of busy, but Dallas was super busy,” she said. “It was just mobs of people.”

The air travel comeback is having a ripple effect. Taxi drivers, who sat idle for hours at the airport one year ago, say they’ve been driving non-stop.

“Probably in the last month it’s just been really busy,” said Robert Ballesteros, a Yellow Cab driver. “A lot of the flights are coming in are full. We saw more people coming into Tucson because they just want to get away from the cold. There are days that we can’t keep up, it’s been really good.”

It goes beyond transportation, though.

“Hotels, the service industry as a whole,” said Carrie Day, a VIP Taxi driver. “There’s a lot more tourism, so it’s starting to get back to normal.”

With graduation ceremonies coming up and snowbirds heading back home, Goetz hopes to keep this momentum going.

“Summer is usually one of the slower months for Tucson because of the heat, but we are seeing a surprise uptick in numbers,” he said. “I think people just want to travel.”

The Tucson International Airport has taken a huge hit from low passenger numbers. Goetz estimates they have lost about $12 million over the last year. The TAA did receive $28 million from the CARES Act and is set to receive another round of federal relief. That money will be stretched over a two-year period, which is how long airport officials expect it will take to return to “businesses as usual.”

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